Now more than ever, Alan Branch is clearly a man in full.
On Wednesday afternoon, he was given the mother of all homecomings.
Already with four kids, a wife, two Super Bowl rings and a 10-year career in the NFL, Branch’s alma mater showered him with adoration and love — plus an unexpected, and permanent, tribute.
“This is unbelievable,” he told a packed gymnasium of students and teachers at Cibola High School. “This is probably one of the best days of my life.”
Now 32, the fun-loving 2004 Cibola grad who once lived in Rio Rancho was recognized in a 30-minute ceremony.
“It was just cool, having so much youth excitement all around,” Branch said. “All this for little ol’ me.”
After a brief slideshow that included photos from his days both at Cibola and the University of Michigan, and after receiving several gifts, Branch was surprised to learn that he had been inducted into Cibola’s Athletic Hall of Fame. The school had kept this a secret in advance of his visit.
“I guess I did something right,” Branch said later.
His presence was an emotional boost for the school, current Cibola football coach Rod Williams said.
“It was a great experience, and it’s very motivational for the kids and I think for the whole school whether you’re in athletics or not,” Williams said.
Branch’s high school sweetheart, Ashley, was in attendance with their newest child: Alan Jr., born in early January. The couple also have three daughters at their home in the Phoenix area. To that end, Branch, who flew into Albuquerque on Wednesday morning, was on his way to the airport to fly back and be with his girls Wednesday afternoon.
But that was only after dozens of Cibola students and staff angled to get selfies with the gentle giant, who is currently a defensive tackle with the New England Patriots and who recovered a crucial second-half fumble in the Pats’ Super Bowl LI come-from-behind victory in February over Atlanta.
“I’m in a good place,” said Branch, talking about his personal and professional harmony. “I just signed a new contract, and I’m just trying to ride the wave as far as it will take me.”
Branch was outfitted casually: a New England-blue T-shirt with a Super Bowl XLIX logo, jeans, tennis shoes and a baseball cap. Among several rings on his hand was the giant bling from Super Bowl XLIX. His second ring with the Patriots is forthcoming.
“This is long overdue,” said Branch’s high school coach at Cibola, Ben Shultz. “What a beautiful homecoming.”
Branch’s parents also were on hand. Branch’s younger brother Desmond is preparing for his redshirt junior season at Georgia Tech and is on track to graduate in 2018.
Alan’s father David was wearing a Patriots jersey.
“One word: honored,” David said of Cibola’s efforts to recognize his son.
Branch recently signed a new contract with the Patriots. Although his playing career, which began in Arizona and continued in Buffalo before he joined New England, got off to a relatively slow start, Branch has endured in a league where the average career lifespan is about three years.
“I found a great home (in Boston),” Branch said. “The scheme we have is probably the best scheme for me, and I’ve had the most production on the field that I’ve ever had.”
Next fall will be his 11th in the NFL. He was the first pick in the second round in the 2007 NFL Draft.
“In my profession,” Branch said with a smile, “I’m a dinosaur.”
A dinosaur, perhaps, but the Pats and coach Bill Belichick clearly like the match.
“He’s there at 5 a.m., 4 a.m. — and at 10 p.m., when I’m jumping in the hot tub for a dip, he’s still there breaking down film,” Branch said of his coach.
Branch, who also traveled to Super Bowl XLIII with the Cardinals, although he didn’t play in that game, said physically he still feels able to play at a high level. Soon, he said, he’ll be gearing up for training camp in July.
“I’m coming off my best season, so I feel like I’m doing all right for an old guy,” he said.
Branch recently made headlines when he chose to skip New England’s April 19 trip to the White House. President Trump’s well-publicized, pre-White House comments that first aired on Access Hollywood — about grabbing a woman’s genitals — deeply upset and offended Branch.
“I didn’t like what I heard. … I don’t support that type of thinking,” Branch said Wednesday. “I have three daughters, so it was an easy decision for me.”
He had previously told CNN: “It’s disgusting the way that he talks about women.”
His choice earned Branch admiration from many.
“He stands firm in his beliefs, and I just respect him so much for being the man that he is,” said Shultz.
Just before Branch left the Cibola gym on Wednesday, he took part in a team photo with the current Cougars football team. Earlier in the day, he met many of the players.
“He treated us good, like a brotherhood,” said senior wide reciever Brandon Garcia. “We’re all a part of the football program. He’s a big inspiration because he shows that anyone can do it, you’ve just got to put the work in.”
Williams said Branch made his players feel at ease.
“It was like he was one of us right away, taking pictures, cracking jokes with us,” he said.
For Branch, coming back to Cibola obviously was a thrill.
“I love this school,” he said. “It’s an awesome school to be a part of.”
Sandia Prep senior journalism student Ryann Rael contributed to this story.